Defending champions Vietnam avoided an ignominious early exit from the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Cup with a hard-fought solitary goal victory over Singapore before a sell-out crowd at the My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi Wednesday.
The team owed its December 8 victory owed as much to custodian Tan Truong, who blocked as many six shots at the goal, as to midfielder Vu Phong who collected a long pass and tucked it between the legs of the advancing Singaporean goalkeeper to score the only goal of the match.
With the victory, Vietnam topped Group B to meet Malaysia, who finished second in Group A, in their next match. Vietnam collected six points, winning two of its three matches and suffering an upset loss against the Philippines.
The Philippines, who were held by Myanmar to a goalless tie draw at Thien Truong Stadium, finished second in the group with five points, with two ties (1-1 against Singapore and 0-0 against Myanmar).
Singapore was knocked out of the tournament with the loss in their last match, coming in third with four points. Myanmar, with only one point, finished last in the group.
Indonesia topped Group A with three impressive victories and nine points, followed by Malaysia who had to be content with four.
Regional powerhouse and strong title contenders Thailand finished third following two ties (against Malaysia and Laos) and a loss to Indonesia, while Laos finished last after drawing their first match with Thailand and losing the next two.
Malaysia will not prove an easy rival for Vietnam. In previous SEA Games, Vietnam's U23 squad lost to Malaysia in 1997 and again in the 2009 finals.
In previous editions of the AFF (formerly called the Tiger Cup) Cup, Malaysia has also posed a big challenge for Vietnam.
In the fight for third place during Tiger Cup 2000, Vietnam lost 0-3, but exacted revenge two years later with a 2-1 victory for a third place finish in the tournament.
In AFF Cup 2008, Vietnam managed to scrape through the group stage with a 3-2 win over Malaysia before beating Thailand in the finals to win the championship.
This year, Vietnam will enter the semis without many of its best players who have been sidelined by injuries as well as penalties.
The first of the two-leg semifinal will take place in Kuala Lumpur on December 15. Three days later, the teams will play each other again in Hanoi.
The winner of the semifinal will meet Indonesia or the Philippines in the final.